Ingredient X

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I’ve been wondering for a while about Ingredient X. As in, the part of us, this human animal, that marks us out from the others.

You know all those “humans are the only species to…” (use language / make war / get high / mourn our dead / have the capacity to blow ourselves up / know God / laugh-cry-blush etc.) pronouncements? Most have been overtaken by zoological findings but new ones are continually being minted (…explore space / enjoy extreme sports / watch Bridgerton etc. etc.) What they have in common is an (insecure?) assumption that something very special separates us from the rest of creation.

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On Kandiaronk (The Rat): A Review of The Dawn of Everything

It is revolutionary, intellectually-speaking, to point out that the European Enlightenment –  especially the suite of political ideals (liberty, equality, democracy)) that are still aspirational for most societies – was inspired by early European encounters with indigenous/native American thinkers.  This is the argument that David Wengrow and the late David Graeber make in the first chapters of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity; tracing Enlightenment ideas about liberty to  the interactions of French colonial military commanders with the great Wendat (Huron) leader and thinker Kandiaronk. It is the earth-shaking first chess move in the argument that Graeber and Wengrow build throughout the rest of the book, an argument that aims to show that the conventional Western theories of the “general course of human history”: 

1. Simply arenʻt true;

2. Have dire political implications;

3. Make the past needlessly dull. Continue reading “On Kandiaronk (The Rat): A Review of The Dawn of Everything”

A totally absurd, utterly impractical wish-list for 2022

#1 Scrap nukes

Why? Ballistic-missile-delivered nuclear warheads are the biggest, fastest, meanest weapons ever, and today there are thousands of them locked in each other’s crosshairs all around the globe. It wouldn’t take much – an unforeseen system failure, a geopolitical miscalculation, a rush of blood to the head of some incompetent nationalist military-political leader – for all hell to be let loose.

Why not? They keep the peace, don’t they? Ukraine relinquished its USSR-legacy nuclear weapons in 1994, under pressure from all sides, and look what it’s facing now. Taiwan was forced to terminate its own nuclear programme in the 1980s and might be in a more robust position today if it hadn’t. Honestly, which world-bestriding military power in 2022 would feel more secure without its nuclear arsenal?

Yeah, but… weapons are made to be used, and a horrible logic dictates that The Bomb will once again be brought into play, humans being what they are when they have too much power at their disposal. Also, manmade systems designed to prevent accidental launch are, like everything else in the universe, subject to Murphy’s Law. Whether triggered deliberately or not, the planet as we know it simply won’t survive an escalating outbreak of nuclear attack and counterattack.

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Who says there’s no such thing as free will?

Who says there’s no such thing as free will? Quite a few people, it turns out. Philosophers, scientists and best-selling public intellectuals, some with real sway.

“This sort of free will [such as choosing between an apple or a banana from the fruit bowl] is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics” says an evolutionary biologist quoted in this considered article by Oliver Burkeman.

The article offers a scan of the field and comes down in favour of a more nuanced understanding of what free will entails. And it got me wondering, because underlying assumptions about what we are and are not capable of deciding and doing must have a big bearing on how we – as individuals and as a global community – relate and respond to cascading environmental breakdown. If we truly live in a clockwork universe, absent free will, then why sweat it?

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There’s something about seagulls

Here on the Bristol Channel, the sound of late summer and early autumn this year has been the relentless whistle-squeak of young seagulls demanding sustenance from their parents and/or being playful.

I’ve been watching the town seagulls – they’re herring gulls, I believe – for a few years now. They are immaculately turned-out, opportunistic, and tremendously graceful on the wing. Like urban foxes, pigeons and the rest they have adapted cannily to urban life and human ubiquity, but unlike those other creatures they are not shy about asserting their authority and voicing their opinion of us. They are loudmouthed and pugnacious and will not be ignored.

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The Era of Cheap Living is Over

Thanksgiving food prices will be higher this year due to supply chain issues, limited trucking, limited labor, and higher costs to food producers.  Thanksgiving could be seen as a symbol of the American life style, our tendency to over-consume an abundance of cheap goods.  We’ve lived this way for decades, but if we are going to address climate change it’s time for us to recognize that the era of plentiful, cheap goods is over.   We will pay more for everything. Continue reading “The Era of Cheap Living is Over”

Changing the flowers

We should be looking at the world as a temple and humans as its devotees, cleaning it, caring for it, changing the flowers. Every small gesture does something to contribute.  (Emily Young)

The COP 26 UN climate meeting in Glasgow starts in a couple of weeks, and it’s not being overly cynical to predict that the best that can come out of it will be a tightening of rich nations’ non-binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with targets declared at COP 21 in Paris, 2015. In other words, another extension of the race among the wealthy and industrialized to be the slowest to feel the fear, slash emissions, and stare down business-as-usual.

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Winter’s discontent

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”
Shakespeare, Richard III

This may become the winter of our discontent as people around the world face a widening energy crisis, rationing because supplies are limited due to delivery shortages, production limits, cost, or by government mandate.  Continue reading “Winter’s discontent”